Monday, July 10, 2006

Palestinian-Americans Denied Entry

Amira Hass reports in Ha’aretz that

For the first time since 1967, Israel is preventing the entry of Palestinians with foreign citizenship, most of them Americans.

The article is a bit confusing since it conflates several different categories of people trying to enter Israel and the territories with American or European passports. The two different categories of Palestinian-Americans who are experiencing the most problems are 1) people who have been living in the territories where they are working at various NGOs, and 2) people coming from the US to visit relatives in Gaza or the West Bank. Another issue that is unclear from Hass’s report is the timing of this change in procedure or policy. Has it been evolving steadily over the course of the second intifadah? Has it been in effect since the Hamas government came to power? Or is a consequence of the recent abduction of an Israeli soldier by Palestinian terrorists?

People in the first of the categories mentioned above have experienced problems entering the country for a while now. Israel has been especially concerned about the motives of some of these NGO workers and activists since a British national with links to the “International Solidarity Movement” participated in a terrorist attack several years ago. But the restrictions on NGO employees, while perhaps disproportionately affecting Palestinians, apply to everyone.

It is the denial of entry to the second category of people that seems most puzzling. From what I have been able to gather, Palestinian-Americans, including those who have no documentation whatsoever connecting them to Israel or the territories, are finding it very hard to enter Israel through Ben Gurion Airport. One 30-year-old woman, who has been living in the US since she was one year old, was prevented from clearing the border. How can we explain this?

I am not 100% clear on this, but it seems that Israel treats Palestinian-Americans (which, I believe, means people born in the territories who were not Israeli citizens) as Palestinians who must provide documentation from the Palestinian Authority rather than as American citizens. Thus, the 30-year-old woman mentioned before was told to get a Palestinian identity number from the PA representative in Amman, or, else to get a special entry permit from the Israeli embassy in Jordan. Such cases could and have occur(red) earlier, but the recent military developments have led to a dramatic increase in the number of Palestinians with American passports being denied entry at Ben Gurion Airport. This spike in rejections is no doubt related to the kidnapping of Shalit and the ongoing operations in the Gaza strip. Israel does not want anyone to enter Gaza at the moment; it also does not want anyone from Gaza to come to Israel.

All this explains a recent US embassy expedition to get American citizens (of Palestinian origins) out of the territories. They had gotten stuck there when the borders were sealed to prevent the escape of the kidnappers. In the embassy’s operation, which took place early in the morning, American passport holders were first brought to the Erez crossing, apparently by UN buses. There, the Israelis subjected them to strict security tests, after which they were handed to American personnel, who verified the parties’ passports. However, instead of being allowed to depart from Ben Gurion Airport in Israel, the Palestinians were bused out of the country to Jordan.

As the US Embassy has been careful to point out – to its own citizens as well as to the press – “America cannot intervene in sovereign decisions of another country.” One can assume, however, that US embassy staffers are not happy about the many calls they have been receiving from American citizens detained for several hours at Ben Gurion Airport while Israeli officials run security checks on them. It probably seems bizarre to them as well that a small group of their citizens is being treated differently from others with the same passport. Of course they are also likely perturbed at those who chose to visit Gaza at this time, without heeding State Department travel advisories.

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